In his latest article, @Rana takes a hard-hitting look at yet another lackluster home-series performance by Pakistan, this time with a 2-2 T20I series result against a New Zealand devoid of their main stars.
By @Rana (25 April 2023)
Pakistan v New Zealand: Same old questions, more empty answers
“I am innocent of the blood of this just person, see ye to it”
Pakistan’s home series against New Zealand’s formality squad took place in the midst of an international window where the world’s elite T20 players are providing services in order to secure their lifetime earnings. Pakistan, considering their political strain with India had the flexibility of picking all available international stars, whilst the New Zealand camp provided valuable opportunities to players who would look to impress and get their names into the hat for a future IPL gig.
The PCB management under Najam Sethi impressed the world when they decided to put the foot down and rest players for a meaningless T20I series against Afghanistan last month, and by providing international exposure to youngsters who impressed during the PSL. However, this decision was not well received by some of the more influential stakeholders in Pakistan, be it journalists or a certain group of players. This lead to the decision to continue grooming the next crop of international talent for Pakistan to be fast overturned with the inclusion of all key starting XI players in the squad against a depleted New Zealand side missing 8-10 first team members.
A clear sign of weakness, Sethi who’s initial return was viewed as the return of Senator Palpatine had now succumbed to the extreme pressure put on him and sacrificed the good will of player development for the sake of meaningless caressing of egos. Like Pontius Pilate, Sethi and the PCB management cleansed their hands at the dismissal of players who showed their skills on home tracks, whilst struggling to adapt immediately on Alien conditions where even its so called best batsmen have struggled to score runs. Those who criticized and threw the youngsters under the bus, and were not willing to allow them to develop in order to maintain status quos got what they wanted, and another meaningless series was underway in Lahore under Babar’s captaincy.
Squad Rotation and Positioning
With the ODI World Cup only a few months away, it was highly strange to see Pakistan wanting to risk playing 80% of its ODI starting XI in a series with not much to gain besides the potential of one or two of your key players picking up an injury. Considering the fact that the PCB have been making much about their overseas professional coaching staff who supposedly view coaching and team management with far more professionalism as compared to the supposedly biased and unprofessional home coaches, it was disappointing to see hardly any squad rotation and a willingness to preserve key assets by giving them breaks.
Throughout the 5 match series, Pakistan’s management made a total of 4 changes in the process, with Zaman Khan, Naseem Shah and Ihsanullah (fringe first team bowlers) doing the honors. One change to the batting was made in the final game in which Mohammad Harris) was reluctantly replaced by Fakhar Zaman in the all important number 3 slot.
In comparison, the New Zealand management was far more creative with their changes by making 8 changes (twice as much as Pakistan) throughout the series, providing a good rotation and rest to their pacers. Matt Henry and Adam Milne who are not currently in New Zealand’s frontline for T20i were available for 3 games out of 5, whilst Shaheen Shah Afridi and Haris Rauf (two frontline Pakistan seamers) were available for all 5 matches.
Tom Latham persisted with a similar top 5 throughout the series, with Chad Bowes, Will Young, Daryl Mitchell and Mark Chapman all knowing their roles with clarity. Babar Azam on the other hand had vivid clarity on his opening strategy, a tactic which he places all his batting eggs whilst and the chinks in the batting line up were visible with the makeshift natural openers Fakhar Zaman and Saim Ayub occupying key spots of 3 and 4 for four of the 5 matches. Considering the clarity NZ had for their positions 1-7 (Jimmy Neesham and Rachin Ravindra also knowing their duties), a clear confusion was at show with a Pakistani version of Musical chairs on display between the number 5-9 positions throughout the series. In one of the most bizarre innings, the Pakistan fans witnessed Iftikhar Ahmed (a genuine batsman) batting at number 8 after Shadab Khan, Imad Wasim and Shaheen Shah Afridi. Eventually, Iftikhar found his role at number 5, and it was Imad whose name was picked out of the hat to bat at number 6 ahead of Shadab, Faheem and Shaheen in the final T20i.
Babar’s captaincy/body language
After the dismal home Test season and the home ODI series loss to New Zealand, Babar Azam returned to national captaincy duties in a very jovial and excessively excited mood, doing his best to demonstrate that the strains of captaincy are not overburdening him in the all-important World Cup year.
Babar was fortunate to win the toss in the first and second T20I and opting to bat first on a ground that heavily favors the team batting first (Lahore). Besides his good fortune with the toss, Babar was reasonably good with his bowling changes ensuring that New Zealand do not get out of the blocks soon enough to chase down the scores set by Pakistan.
Pakistan and Babar were tested in the 3rd T20I in which New Zealand finally got the chance to set a total instead of having to chase at Lahore, and this indeed posed many tricky questions for Pakistan with their lower order and strategy completely being exposed as a total mess. Iftikhar Ahmed and Faheem Ashraf did try to rescue the match and seal the series for Pakistan, but the damage done earlier by Latham’s men was enough to hand Pakistan a defeat at Lahore and keeping the series alive.
Babar’s captaincy was once again put to the sword by the early breakthroughs made by New Zealand in the 5th T20I with the ball, as the youngsters Saim and Haris failed to make an impression (considering it was Babar who trusted them in the number 3 and 4 position). A rescue by Mohammad Rizwan, Iftikhar Ahmed and Imad Wasim enabled Pakistan to score a reasonable total at Pindi, and the start by Shaheen was one of his better starts in the series. With New Zealand once again on the ropes, or with any team during a clutch game once again on the ropes, the great Pakistan ‘switch off’ came back to haunt Babar and his team! The assault by the form man Mark Chapman and the experience of Jimmy Neesham enabled New Zealand to put on a 120+ runs partnership for the 5th wicket in the last 10 overs, and Babar could only watch in a stunned manner another series slipping out of his hands. The stunned expression on Babar’s face in the last few overs of the 5th T20I was a stark contrast to the overexcited, gleeful Babar Azam in the first two T20Is. It was highly strange to see Pakistan and Babar switch off so badly that the field was spread on the boundaries even when 4 runs were needed to win in the last over, a clear and meek surrender!
Babar has shown some improvements with his bowling choices, especially with trusting Imad Wasim to operate within the powerplay and reaping the rewards with Imad delivering most often, at the same time there are some extremely evident deficiencies that are still not resolved by Pakistan since the 2021 world cup.
1. The Middle order issue yet to be resolved since Mohammad Hafeez/Shoaib Malik retirements
One may have come to the conclusion that this issue will possibly remain with Pakistan for the next decade. Considering established Pakistani batsmen have the tendency to want to retire from International cricket in the 40s; both Babar Azam and Muhammad Rizwan accordingly have at least another decade to offer to Pakistan cricket and they seem to be immovable in the opening spots for that matter. Pakistan has no choice whatsoever to either:
A) Keep playing openers, who scored the bulk of their runs at a good strike rate as openers for their franchises and fc teams to bat in the crucial middle order positions
B) Keep chopping and changing any impressive, natural middle order player and hope that they cement their spot in that position. For example, to hope players like Abdullah Shafique, Azam Khan, Hussain Talat, Shan Masood, Iftikhar Ahmed and anyone brave enough to bat in these positions can finally cement their position in these numbers (3-5)
C) Hoping for the best with bowling all rounders such as Shadab, Imad and Shaheen to miraculously become the Millers, SKYs, Stoinis, Maxwells and Livingstones of Pakistan cricket.
D) Praying that another gifted, talented player like the junior Umar Akmal emerges out of nowhere and takes the team forward.
Or, what they can and should really do is put the foot down on Babar Azam and force him to bat in the positions he bats in for ODI and Test cricket (where he doesn’t open) and do the same with Rizwan (who bats at 5 in Test and 4 in ODI). It's probably more beneficial to the team to have these two at 3 and 4 instead of openers having to makeshift in those positions.
2. Pakistan’s lack of a potent/game-changing spinner
It was delightful to see Imad Wasim fulfilling his role by keeping economical in the powerplay and also picking up some wickets in the process. Imad’s bowling in Rawalpindi has been outstanding regardless of the quality of the opposition, as 'Pindi is a merciless venue for bowlers. With 8 wickets @10.37 and an economy of 5.92, Imad Wasim really has put to shame the previous management that needlessly kept him out of the squad.
His performances can be compared to Pakistan’s leading wicket taker (Shadab Khan) in this format who completely failed to leave a mark! Shadab’s experience and confidence in his ability should have seen him keep the Kiwis in check, but the battle against Chapman proved far too difficult for him as Shadab only picked up 3 wickets in the 5 matches @48.00 and an economy of 9.60. The vice captain of Pakistan is treading very thin line here with Usama Mir breathing right down his neck for his position as the main spinner/lower order hitter for the side.
3. Shaheen Shah Afridi on the verge of burnout (Physical/mental)
The Pakistan management is more than happy to risk their premier pace bowling asset in a pointless series against New Zealand’s depleted side during a world cup year. With Shaheen, you can expect 100% commitment too in the field and taking care of his body when diving to stop the ball isn’t something that will hold him back. For now, Pakistan has survived another series with Shaheen unscathed physically, and lets hope they keep avoiding the landmine of a long lay off with this kid.
Having said that, Shaheen’s insistence on playing this series hasn’t quite set the world alight or worked out for him as he may have wanted. Whilst always carrying a threat in his first over and at time his second over, Shaheen found it difficult to break through against the left handed Latham in Lahore. He was then truly hammered by Chad Bowes in Rawalpindi who took a keen liking to him. With figures of 2-48 in his 4 overs, such performances are not befitting a bowler of his stature and class in a series-defining match.
6 wickets @26.16 with an economy 8.72 is not good enough by one of the best bowlers in the world, especially with his rival counterpart leading the attack for New Zealand (Matt Henry) can achieve 6 wickets @14.66 and an economy of 7.33 on the same tracks. Shaheen is clearly a much better bowler than this, however it is high time that the PCB and the coaching staff try to work out his workload and not totally wear him out like they have done with other fast bowlers in the past.
4. Fakhar Zaman’s career going nowhere
Unfortunately, it seems one of the best white ball batsmen of the modern era that Pakistan has produced is heading towards nothingness in this format for his country. It is sad to see him having to bat at three, considering all of his success at PSL level comes as an opener. However, Fakhar himself needs to make some tough decisions before the PCB make them for him. These can be:
- Does he want to represent Pakistan in T20I cricket?
- If so, how does he hope to represent Pakistan?
- If he only sees himself as an opener (as do most sane people), well that’s not going to happen with the way things currently is for him.
- If he knows his only shot is to play at 3, 4, or any other position from 3-6, well then, he must acclimatize to those positions first for his franchise and domestic side, and then try to translate that for Pakistan.
Fakhar is in this position three years since Misbah’s appointment as the coach of Pakistan. Saim could only hope that he learns from Fakhar’s mistakes.
The few positives/gains from the series
A well-fought, closely competitive series ending as a 2-2 draw would suggest that there has been some positives in this series for both sides. Pakistan will be disappointed that they did not seal the series or dominate as they should have, but they have still made some positives strides, one of them being the successful reintegration of Imad Wasim into the side as a cricketer and a team member. Besides Imad Wasim;
- Harris Rauf impressed a lot during the Lahore leg of the series by picking up 11 wickets @13.63 and an economy of 7.75. Rauf was under some pressure to regain some form, especially after nearly costing Lahore the PSL with his horrendous penultimate over against Multan Sultans. The Kiwi batsmen were unable to play him or build any real momentum against him in the three matches at the Gaddafi stadium, which enabled Harris to regain some of his credibility as one of the best T20 pacers in the world.
- Another man who has impressed for Pakistan was Iftikhar Ahmed, who finally looked to have broken the shackles and batted freely with power and dominance showcasing his ability. It was about time that IftiMania ran wild, and it did with Iftikhar attaining the highest strike rate of 195.45 in the series, and also levelling Mark Chapman with the most sixes having scored 11 of them @6 balls per six!
- On a more positive note for Babar and Rizwan, the intent has been a lot better given that they play the lion share of the powerplay, and the tracks+ the boundary sizes in Pakistan are not the most difficult. Both openers ended with strike rates of 140-145, whilst Babar also delivered a mammoth 3 sixes in the process (having not scored any six in the recent past at international level).
- Pakistan also has not been at their worst throughout the series in the field. Besides the one costly catch dropped by Shadab in the 5th T20I of Mark Chapman, Pakistan has looked reasonably sharp. Although, Ihsanullah who may well be an exciting international upcoming bowler must improve his personal fielding standards, which are not on professional cricket level at the moment.
In all honesty, Pakistan have not made any real advancements as a T20 team in a series that had very little at stake. It should really have been better utilized by further developing the bench strength, whereas it has simply resulted in more doubts for a side that is already plagued with doubts since the Asia cup, England 7 match series, Tri-series in New Zealand and the T20I World Cup down under. Pakistan are likely to play their next T20I in February 2024, and the conclusion of this series has just left the country and the management with so many more questions rather than answers:
- Further doubt has crept in regarding the actual power and authority held by the PCB management upon its players
- There is more doubt at the end of this series as to whether Babar truly is the right leader of this country
- More doubt has crept in regards to the priorities of the players in this team and whether they are playing for their country or for their own personal milestones.
- Doubt has been created as to whether Pakistan’s ace talismans in the bowling department are truly good enough, or dependable to deliver the goods for their country
- More doubt has crept in as to whether this team truly has a credible strategy in winning games rather than hoping for the best.
- Still no resolution on the middle order conundrum
Results like this usually will have a knock on effect going into the ODI series with the Kiwi reserves fancying their chances at causing another major embarrassment for the home side, and continuing to pile on the doubts leading into the Asia cup and the world cup. Overall, a very impressive series for New Zealand who have at least found a gem of a player in Mark Chapman whilst their key player (Kane Williamson) may be unavailable for them in the world cup. It is unfortunate that Pakistan couldn’t pre-empt the possibility of losing its key players and developing others who could have to step up like Mark Chapman has done so!